Last week, the Weekly Rotation covered the five most disappointing signings from an offseason that’s yielded plenty of them thus far. It’s time to examine the shinier side of the coin this time around, ranking the five most impactful acquisitions who’re quickly endearing themselves to the hometown fans.
Not every player mentioned is a new face in a new place, however. The list includes two guys who examined the free-agent landscape, only to realize the grass isn’t always greener on the other field. With major-leaguers constantly traveling during a 162-game grind, perhaps there’s something to be said for familiarity in the big leagues.
Note: All statistics are accurate as of games played through May 17.
5. Johnny Cueto, Giants
2016 Stats: 5-1, 2.97 ERA, 10 BB, 53 K in 57.2 IP
It was a close call here between Cueto and his rotation mate Jeff Samardzija. Both have been vital components in San Francisco’s quest to brew another batch of even-year magic, but Johnny Beisbol beats The Shark by a nose due to his superior peripherals.
Cueto has walked a career-low 1.6 hitters per nine innings, while his strikeout rate has nearly rebounded to where it was in 2014, when he led the National League in innings and strikeouts to finish as the Cy Young runner-up.
As he did in 2014, Cueto currently leads the Senior Circuit in batters faced (230). He’s been a top-five starter in the Majors according to Fangraphs’ version of WAR (1.8). If the 30-year-old continues to eat innings for the Giants like this through the fall, he’ll have a pretty decent shot at earning back-to-back World Series rings.
4. Vince Velasquez, Phillies
2016 Stats: 5-1, 2.42 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 59 K, 15 BB in 48.1 IP
The only player on this list who joined his new team via trade in the offseason, Velasquez might not have been recognized by some fans as the crown jewel of the Ken Giles trade with Houston. Though former No. 1 pick Mark Appel was also acquired by Philadelphia in that swap, Velasquez has made it clear who the more promising prospect is.
By allowing fewer than a baserunner per inning while posting an 11.0 K/9 rate and 2.42 ERA through eight starts, Velasquez has established himself as a future playoff starter for the Phillies (whenever they make it back to October). Fangraphs credits him with 1.7 WAR thus far, good for seventh among all pitchers.
The 23-year-old is getting it done with his fastball, which has been one of the most valuable pitches in the league. Opposing hitters whiff on 28.5 percent of Velasquez’s heaters, the third-highest rate among starters. Eight of his 10 strikeouts against the Marlins Tuesday night came via fastball, which averages 94 mph and probably looks even faster when it follows a mid-70s curveball. That’s the sort of stuff that could earn Velasquez a call to the All-Star Game this summer.
3. Yoenis Cespedes, Mets
2016 Stats: .282/.364/.637 slash line, 12 HR, 32 RBI in 34 games
The Mets were compelled to sign Cespedes off the open market after witnessing him carry the franchise offensively following a midseason trade with Detroit last year. He boasted a .942 OPS after coming over from the Motor City, launching 17 home runs in 57 games.
Well, turns out “Cespedes Festivus” is a multi-year event. In fact, he’s been even better this year, recording a 1.001 OPS with 12 homers through 34 contests.
A noticeable difference in Cespedes’ plate approach has emerged, as the notorious free-swinger is suddenly showing improved patience: His walk rate has doubled since last year, up to a career-high 10 percent. After drawing 14 walks in 57 games in New York last year, he matched that total in his first 33 games in 2016.
Cespedes seems like a lock to make the All-Star team for the second time, and he could very well be voted in as a starter due to his heightened profile and penchant for the spectacular. He’d join Carlos Beltran as the only Mets outfielders to earn an All-Star bid in the last 20 years.
2. Dexter Fowler, Cubs
2016 Stats: .321/.438/.527 slash line, 24 walks, 42 hits, 14 doubles in 36 games
Thanks to some recently captured karaoke footage, we know Dexter Fowler likes to be called Big Poppa. He’s earned that nickname, as he’s given Cubs fans plenty of reasons to put their hands in the air for a true player.
Fowler has already earned the $8 million he netted from the South Siders after a bizarre free-agent fiasco annulled an apparent agreement with Baltimore. He’s tied with Nolan Arenado for the NL lead with 2.2 WAR, matching his total from 2015, and is on pace to become the first player to crack 60 doubles since before World War II.
Unsurprisingly, the 30-year-old is on track to post career highs across the board. With the Orioles doling most of its left-field at-bats to Joey Rickard (.690 OPS), think they regret low-balling Fowler?
1. Daniel Murphy, Nationals
2016 Stats: .399/.431/.622 slash line, 5 HR, 57 hits in 38 games
Every year, there seems to be one player who flirts with a .400 batting average significantly longer than anyone else. In 2016, that hitter is the same guy who claimed the 2015 playoffs as his own personal coming-out party.
Murphy was so much better than he’d previously been for the Mets during their World Series run, it was easy to forget he made the All-Star team in 2014. He just seemed like a totally different player during that record-breaking tear.
But what he’s done since parlaying that breakout into a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Washington is arguably more impressive. After recording a 1.115 OPS in 14 postseason games, he’s logged a 1.054 OPS in 38 games while leading the Majors in hits (57) and batting average (.399).
Murphy has been a massive upgrade for a team that split second base duties between Danny Espinosa and *shudder* Dan Uggla last year. If the Nationals end up re-claiming the NL East crown from Murphy’s former team, swiping the 31-year-old late-bloomer will have likely been the difference.
Close calls: Jordan Zimmermann (Tigers), Todd Frazier (White Sox), Ben Zobrist (Cubs), Jeff Samardzija (Giants), Drew Pomeranz (Padres), Jean Segura (Diamondbacks), Chris Davis (Orioles)